IN CONVERSATION WITH STREETMAX
As a street photographer, Streetmax 21 takes an observational view of how our present circumstances govern our behaviour individually and in crowds. In his photographs, the built environment, static and inanimate, is the stage upon which a walking choreography is played out. The humans, who bring the animate, are spatially arranged as though carefully directed. Streetmax 21 ponders the question, have they been conditioned already to act like automatons or self-absorbed passersby uncannily acting out parts in mental isolation? Adhering to the rules of candid street photography, he will often 'build' a shot by waiting for a satisfactory outcome in real time. This, according to other commentators, is perhaps why the images ring true as documentary. Often shot in a half light with a muted colour palette, there at first seems something sad about these corporate scenes but there is an intention to transcend the mundane by sometimes making comical comment on our increasingly designed environment.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you become interested in photography?
I was born in Dundee, Scotland. I shuttle between London, where I’ve spent most of my adult life, and Norfolk, where I live now. I became interested in photography by degrees, at first using it as a means to assist in painting which I studied at art college. I’ve taken photographs ever since, working professionally for a while as an architectural photographer. My foray into street photography came about almost accidentally as a sideline to the large format architecture I was shooting for clients. I began to realise slowly that it was something I could do on my own terms.
Where or how do you find inspiration?
It’s difficult to pinpoint where I find inspiration but I like to think about what it is I’m trying to do. I’ll have several ideas fructifying at any one time, most of which I’ll later discard. The important thing is to find something that works on a multiplicity of levels. In a world awash with imagery, it’s necessary to strike up a signature style and augment it with relevant and recognizable add-ons.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers?
My visual cues derive from a variety of media, mainly painting. Favourites here would be Nicolas Poussin, Holbein drawings, Ingres drawings, Eadweard Muybridge, Futurists, Photo-realists including Howard Kanovitz, Conceptualists Opalka, Darboven, Kawara and LeWitt. I like the idea of continuity in art - one artist/photographer laying the groundwork for another to follow and reinterpret. The best example of this was the British post-war sculpture movement, the most authentic to come out of London in recent times. In photography, being able to use light like Ray Metzker and having an eye for colour like Fred Herzog are things I aspire to. That said, I prefer to perceive what may be relevant artistically/photographically without looking too closely at the work of other artists/photographers. It’s enough to be aware of the canon so as not to commit the sin of repeating it.
What do you want to express through your photography? What are some of the elements you always try to include in your photographs?
I think it’s imperative to be aware of trends impacting upon the human condition and to have a ready means of translating or alluding to these aesthetically. For example, It’s become very obvious today that technology has caused behavioural change in both overt and subtle ways. It connects us, but it has been instrumental also in disconnecting many from real society. I’m conscious of letting these polarities inform the images I make. Although I predominantly photograph figures, both minimalism and conceptualism are forms which I have in mind always although I don’t necessarily work with their rigour. Photographic layering is less important to me than layers of meaning. The meaning of separated figures as a metaphor arises. Do they play with shifts in meaning yet evoke different analogies? Would it have been possible to make this work in another era? I don’t have answers, only questions made manifest by enigmatic imagery.
Where is your most favourite place to go photograph?
The bulk of my street photography has been done in London and particularly the City of London, often referred to as “The Square Mile”. I lived on the fringe of the City for over a decade and it became my photographic playground. Few live in it and it’s often deserted at weekends. The richest borough in the world surrounded by some of the poorest boroughs in Europe is a place like no other. I’ve referred before to it’s robotic formality, which I find compelling. It’s forever in an amoeba-like state of renewal. As well as the Portland Stone and metal clad corporate environment, I often photograph figures amidst the graphic devices of scaffolding and temporary hoardings as a nod to this continual regeneration.
What happens when you go out with your camera? Do people respond positively to you, or do you sometimes get negative reactions? If yes, how do you handle it?
I try to use techniques that ensure I don’t draw too much attention to myself when shooting. For instance, on taking up a position, I often shoot from just below eye-level at chin height, lowering my eye to the viewfinder periodically to check the framing. This enables me not only to better see what’s about to enter the frame by looking over the camera, but gives the impression that I’m not shooting at all, merely considering it. Bar the occasional passer-by who’ll enquire about the camera I’m using, I don’t get much response either way.
When you take pictures, do you usually have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both?
Very occasionally images come to me but usually I adopt a watch and wait approach. I keep a number of locations in mind that I can return to when conditions are right. Some, I’ll visit several times. I’m looking for rhythm in moving figures and to have them separated visually within plastic space. Even though I’m working in a real environment, shooting figures in this way can give them an unreal look. It’s this kind of dichotomy that I find interesting. I photograph people because they’re more interesting than ideas, and I see figuration as a casing or a vehicular language capable of externalising concepts.
Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?
I work with Fuji x-series cameras with 35mm equivalent lenses. I use a Nikon with wide angle lenses also. The only attachment I have is a spirit level mounted on the shoe - useful if I want to shoot from the hip or when I can’t see the on-board camera spirit level. Depth of field is always a concern for me given the complexity of what I’m attempting to photograph. In changeable London weather conditions, x-series cameras are pretty good when it's sunny, but at wider apertures they can soften badly at the image edge.
What are some of your goals as an artist or photographer? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
I aim for consistency and continuity. It’s very difficult to do good work. If it weren’t, people would do it all the time. I’m trying to attain and maintain a strength, quality and intelligence that I seek in the work of others. Who can say where one will be in five years? I would hope that the basic concepts I’ve put in place serve to further enhance the impact of the street photography strategy I’ve embarked upon.
Are there any special projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
I’m toying with the idea of authoring some past and future work under another ‘nom de guerre’ - someone influenced by Streetmax 21 and street photography but who makes other work in a variety of media.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
…feel secure in the knowledge that I have the two most important things a photographer needs in life; a good mattress and a good pair of shoes. If I’m not in one, I’m in the other."